The Rose of Castile, Part 8 (Vengeance)

In the months that followed Raul and Inés’ arrival, they
settled into their roles as Lord and Lady of Cuéllar with relative ease and
grace. During the day, Inés was left to run the household and care for Estela
while Raul conferred with members of the newly appointed town council, oversaw
the construction of defensive structures and organized the town’s militia.

As the wife of the lord, Inés took it upon herself to
make the acquaintance of everyone in town and to welcome the new settlors as
they arrived. While the weather was good, she could often be seen strolling
down the town’s main thoroughfare arm in arm with the wives and daughters of
the very craftsman, farmers, and herders of livestock that Abbot Pablo had
spoken of so dismissively on her first night in Cuéllar. She won them over with
her charm and lack of pretentiousness and they rewarded with their confidences
and candor. In addition to making her daily rounds about town, she also made a
point of visiting those who had settled in the surrounding alfoz and often bore
supplies to distribute to those that were most in need.

Aside from these tasks, Inés often found that
overseeing the care of her mischievous and high-spirited daughter, Estela, was
a fulltime job on all its own. In fact, it was a rare day indeed when she
didn’t hear that Estela hadn’t gotten herself into some kind of trouble,
whether it was luring a stray dog in her room, stealing sweet treats from the
kitchen, or trying to hide from her nursemaid, Mencia, at every possible
opportunity.

The morning of the first day of fall was no exception.
Inés was preparing for her visit to a few families in the alfoz when Mencia
came running toward her.

“Milady,” Mencia said with a panicked look. “Have you
seen Estela? I turned my back on her for just a minute to change the sheets on
her bed and now I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

Knowing Estela’s penchant for playing hide and seek,
Inés remained calm as she ticked off the places where her hija most liked to
conceal herself. But even she began to worry when the nursemaid replied that
she had already checked those places and had seen no sign of Estela. After
searching the house top to bottom, both she and Mencia walked over to the
stables and asked, Ernesto, the stablemaster, if he or any of the stable boys
had seen Estela.

“Oh yes, milady,” Ernesto said. “She came running in
just as Don Raul was mounting his horse and asked him if she could go with
him.”

“Did he say yes?” Mencia asked hopefully.

“He picked her right up and put her in the saddle in
front of him,” Ernesto replied. “You should have seen the smile on her face.”

“Do you know where Don Raul went?” Mencia asked.

“I heard him tell his alférez, Don Alfonso, that going
to inspect the construction of the fortress was the first thing they were going
to do.”

“Thank you, Ernesto,” Inés replied and then motioned
for a stable boy to bring her horse forward. Turning to Mencia, she said, “Can
you find Don Francisco and tell him that I have gone to fetch Estela from her papá
and will be ready to depart for the alfoz as soon as I return?” As soon as the
nursemaid nodded, she added, “I shouldn’t be long.”

Inés reached the fortress, which was being built on
the highest hill in town, within minutes. The sun was out and the skies were
clear. She found Estela standing in front of Raul with her hands on her hips and
her feet shoulder width apart, just like her papá. She smiled inwardly but suppressed
the urge to laugh as she alighted from her horse and called out to her errant daughter.

Estela was beaming as she waved her arms in the air at
Inés. “Mamá, look at the castle Papá and I are building for you? Do you like
it?”

After turning her attention to what was now little
more than a small section of one side of the citadel’s inner wall, she replied,
“It’s lovely dear.” And then, after a brief pause, she added, “Estela, you gave
us all a fright. Why did you go and run off without telling Mencia where you
were going?”

“I’m sorry
mama,” Estela replied as she moved closer to Raul and wrapped her arms around
his leg. “I forgot. Are you mad at me?”

“No, but you musn’t do things like that. It isn’t
safe.”

“But Mamá…”

At that point, Raul put a finger to his lips and made
a shushing sound before saying, “Don’t argue with your mamá.”

“Come now,” Inés said in a gentle but firm voice. “Papá
is very busy. He doesn’t have time to play with you now.”

Estela shook her head and stubbornly clung to Raul’s
leg. “You go. I stay. Papá needs me.”

“Estela,” Raul said, shaking his head. “You heard your
mamá. Go on.”

“Yes, Papá,” Estela replied as she bowed her head and
slumped her shoulders. Within seconds, she was bawling uncontrollably. Inés swooped
her up into her arms.

“You’ll be fine,” Raul said as he came up to Inés and
Estela and patted his hija’s back. Once her tears subsided, he also helped her to
mount Inés’ horse.

“Will you be home at all this afternoon?” Inés asked.

Raul shook his head. “I going to be meeting with many
of the townsmen at the Inn to discuss the fuero (charter) that is currently
being drafted for the town. There are many items on the agenda and I expect
that it will take some time to get through them and to answer all the questions
the townsmen might have about what their rights and obligations will be going
forward.”

“You and Estela needn’t wait for me if I’m not back by
dinnertime.” Pointing to Estela, Inés quickly added, “Thanks to this little one
running off, Don Francisco and I are going to get a late start.”

“I don’t suppose that I could convince you to postpone
your trip through the alfoz.” Raul said as he put his hand over hers. “There
have been reports of bandits and thieves in the area. Please be careful and
promise me that you’ll return before dark.”

“You worry far too much. Don Francisco is one of your
most capable knights. I’m certain that no harm will come to me as long as he is
by my side.”

Although Raul looked unconvinced, he gave her hand a
squeeze and said no more. Relieved that Raul had chosen not to argue further,
she nudged her horse forward and waved to him as she and Estela departed for
home.

On their way back, Inés came upon several townspeople
along the way, including the old innkeeper’s daughter, Maria, a petite and thin
girl with dark hair and eyes, who was walking in the opposite direction.

“Good morning,” Maria called out to Inés and Estela
with a smile and a curtsy.

“Good morning to you,” Inés said as she brought her
horse to a halt.

Maria patted the mare’s neck as she looked up at
Estela’s tear-streaked face and said, “What’s the matter milady. Why so sad?”
Estela pouted and rubbed her eyes but said nothing. Maria stepped closer and
cupped her mouth as she leaned in and said, “I know just the thing that will
put a smile back on your face. Do you want to know what it is?” Estela nodded.
Maria continued. “I was just heading home to take the berry pies I made for your
padre’s meeting out of the oven. If it’s okay with your madre, maybe you can
come over later and have some too. I will even save the biggest piece just for
you. Would you like that?”

Estela bit her lip and nodded again before looking up
at Inés and asking, “Can I go to Maria’s? Please.”

Inés replied, “I can’t take you but maybe Mencia will
if you apologize to her nicely and promise that you won’t run off again without
telling her where you’re going.”

“But I didn’t run away. I went to help Papá build the castle.”

“Did you?” Maria asked with a gasp. “That’s a big job
for a little one like you.”

“Papá says I’m getting bigger every day,” Estela
replied as she lifted her chin with pride. “Isn’t that right, Mamá?”

“That’s true, mi amor. But you still have a very long
way to go…and much to learn.” Inés asked Maria, “What time should Mencia bring
Estela over?”

“Any time this afternoon would be fine. I was told
that Don Raul and other townsmen would be arriving at the Inn at noon.” Maria
then turned to Estela, adding, “My abuelo (grandfather) will be so pleased to
see you milady.”

Just then, Inés caught sight of two elderly ladies
from the village coming toward them. Although they greeted and curtsied to Inés
and Estela as they passed by, they extended no such courtesy to Maria. In fact,
they appeared to go out of their way to make it known that they thought she was
a persona non grata by crossing themselves while hurrying past her.

Inés waited until they were out of earshot before
asking, “Has anyone been mistreating you?”

“Oh no. They’re just afraid. I don’t mind it really. There
have always been women in my family who are healers. Some people don’t
understand what I do and call it black magic. But how can that be, when I’ve
only used my family’s homemade ointments and herbal teas to make people feel
better? But when I try to explain how these remedies work, they shoo me away
and call me a liar. Even Abbot Pablo seems wary of me even though he sees me at
daily mass and for confession.”

“You should have nothing to fear,” Inés replied with
more certainty than she actually felt. “But if someone ever does make an
accusation against you, rest assured that Don Raul will see to it that you are
treated fairly and justly.”

“Thank you,” Maria replied. “He’s a good and kindly
lord. I’ve not heard a single man or woman in town speak ill of him.”

Inés smiled. “It’s always a pleasure to see you Maria
and thank you for inviting Estela over to the Inn this afternoon for a treat.”

“You’re very welcome,” Maria said with a curtsy and
then said to Estela, “Cheer up milady. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

When they arrived at their residence, Inés promptly handed
Estela over to Mencia and then joined Don Francisco in the courtyard. Once he
had finished securing the blankets, clothes and shoes that she was going to
distribute to families in the alfoz onto both his horse and hers, they set off at
a brisk clip to make up for the time they had lost.

Although the sun was still high in the sky, Inés knew
that she now had precious little time to waste to make her rounds and to see
everyone that she had planned to visit. As she trotted past the Inn, she
noticed that Raul’s horse was already tied to a post alongside those of his
men.  Once she had ridden past the last
building in town, she urged the horse to break into a gallop and invited Don
Francisco to do likewise. They kept up this brisk pace until they were a
quarter mile past town and came upon what appeared to be a badly injured man lying
by the side of the road.

“Help me,” the man cried out as he lay groaning on the
grass.

Don Francisco advised Inés to keep her distance as he
dismounted and took a closer look at the man. “What happened to you?”

“I was attacked by bandits,” the man replied feebly. “They
stole everything I had, including my horse. They punched and kicked me until I
thought I might pass out and then left me here for dead.”

Just then, Inés noticed that Rodrigo, a young boy she
knew from town, was in the vicinity. Fearful for his safety, Inés alighted from
her horse and motioned for the boy not to come any closer. “Rodrigo, what are
you doing here? Where are your parents?”

Rodrigo looked behind him and pointed toward town and
said, “Papá’s on his way. Do you see him? He’s over there.”

“You shouldn’t wander so far away from him,” Inés
replied as her eyes darted about for any sign of the attackers who had left the
stranger lying on the ground for dead. “It isn’t safe for you to be out here on
your own.”

“Why is that man lying there?” Rodrigo asked as he
looked past her.

“He’s hurt,” Inés replied. “I need you to do me a
favor and hurry back to town to find Don Raul. He needs to know that a man has
been attacked by bandits just outside town and is in need of immediate
assistance.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’s at the Inn with many of the other townsmen.
Please hurry.”

“Yes, milady.”

As Rodrigo scurried back to town, Inés refocused her
attention on the injured man and Don Francisco, who had just bent down at the
man’s urging. To her horror, the man pulled out a dagger and slashed the
knight’s throat just seconds later. For a moment she was too shocked to move
and didn’t come to her senses until it was too late to escape. She turned and
ran as Don Francisco’s body slumped onto the dirt road and tried to mount her
horse, but the man grabbed her before she could get away and threw her to the
ground.

“Who are you?” the man asked as he knelt beside her
and held the tip of his dagger to her throat. When she refused to answer, the
man spat in her face and kicked her in the ribs. He then clutched her neck and started
squeezing as he said, “Answer me.”

“My name is Inés,” she stammered while gasping for air.

“That’s better,” the man said as he leered and licked
his lips. “And don’t even try to think of escaping. You wouldn’t want me to
mark-up that pretty face of yours, would you?” Just then, three disheveled and
foul-smelling riders appeared out of nowhere.

“Who’s she?” asked one nearly toothless rider as the
man pulled her upright and held her hands behind her back.

“She’s says her name is Inés,” the man replied as he
slid one hand over her breast and gave it a squeeze. “She’s a pretty one, isn’t
she?” The others cackled.

“I’d love to have a go with her,” said another rider.
“We could all take a turn or two. What do you say?”

“She’s all mine,” the man replied as he pulled her tightly
to him and rubbed his aroused flesh against her bottom again and again. She
whimpered and tried to wriggle away.

That was when she heard it. The sound of countless
sets of horses’ hooves thundering ever closer from town. She turned her head
and wanted to cry out with joy when she saw Raul and the town’s militia racing
toward her. Even from where she stood, she could feel his fury and knew at once
that these bandits would receive no mercy from the Lord of Cuéllar.

The man cursed and threw Inés to the ground. He tried
to leap onto her horse, which balked and pitched him off, while his companions
turned and fled. Raul ordered his alférez and former squire, Don Alfonso, and
the rest of the militia to give chase to those men while he focused his
attention on the man who had been holding a dagger to Inés’ throat. When he tried
run away on foot, Raul cut him down with his sword. After dismounting and
unsheathing his dagger, he ordered Inés to look away before pulling the man’s
head back by his hair and slicing his neck from one side to the other.  

Inés was shaking from head to toe as she curled up
into a ball and covered her ears to block out the man’s last few agonized cries.
And then, when she finally screwed up the courage to see what Raul had done,
she saw that he was standing with his back to her while holding the man’s severed
head by the hair. She screamed. The man’s head fell to the ground as he turned
to face her. And when she opened her mouth to speak, words failed her.

Within moments, Don Alfonso returned and said, “My
lord, we chased the men down. They’re all dead. What shall we do with them
now?”

Raul glanced at Inés and then said to his alférez, “Burn
the bodies and stick this one’s head on spike and place it at the town’s entrance.
Let it serve as a warning to those who might wish to do us harm.”

“Yes, my lord. Is there anything else you would like
me to do?”

Raul nodded and said, “I want you to escort Doña Inés
back to town. Don’t leave her side until I return.”

Inés shuttered herself in the bedchamber that she
shared with Raul for the rest of the afternoon and instructed her lady’s maid to
tell the other servants in the household that she did not want to be disturbed.
She ate little of the meal that was brought to her room at dinnertime and only
ventured out once to bid Estela good night before Mencia put her to bed.  

While walking back to her room, she asked a passing servant
if Raul had yet returned and was told that he had not. Alarm bells instantly went
off in her head. It wasn’t like him to be away from home this long. And so, she
directed the servant to tell Don Alfonso that she wished to speak to him
immediately in her private quarters.

Don Alfonso arrived just a short while later. “You
called for me?”

“Yes,” Inés replied as she paced back and forth across
the room. “Have you seen or heard from Don Raul? He should have returned hours
ago. Do you know where he is?”

“He’s here,” Don Alfonso replied slowly. “When I told
him that you had spent the afternoon secluded in your room, he arranged to have
his bath drawn in the guest room so as not to disturb you.”

Although Inés’ first inclination was to rush over to
where Raul was, she instead asked Don Alfonso, “Can you please tell him once
he’s had the chance to finish his bath and dress that I wish to speak with
him?”

“Of course, my lady.”

Once Don Alfonso had gone, Inés scrambled to organize
her thoughts. She wondered if he was angry with her for refusing to listen to
his repeated warnings about the dangers of venturing out into the alfoz and/or
blamed her for Don Francisco’s death. Could the day’s horrors could have simply
been avoided if she had just heeded his advice and stayed in town? Would an
apology be enough to atone for what she believed was her part in causing the
mayhem that resulted in the brutal deaths of five men? But if not, then what? In
fact, she was so lost in thought that she didn’t realize that Raul was standing
by the door and watching pace back and forth until he called out her name.

Inés bridged the gap between them within seconds and
flung herself into his arms. “Oh Raul, where have you been? I was so worried
about you.”

“I’m fine Inés,” Raul replied with a tentative smile. He
looked like he was attempting to assess both her mood and state of mind. “How
are you?”

“Better now that you’re here.”

“Are you?” he asked. “I haven’t been able to get the
expression on your face after I killed that man out of my mind. You looked
disgusted, horrified. It made me feel like a monster and I thought that you saw
me as one too.”

Inés shook her head. “That’s not true at all, far from
it. The man you killed slit Don Francisco’s throat right in front of me without
any sense of remorse or hesitation. And both he and his companions made it very
clear to me that they all wanted to…”

“Don’t,” Raul cut in. “It’s over, and all that matters
to me now is that you are safe and well. It was fortunate that the boy you sent
back to town found me as quickly as he did.”

“You saved my life.”

“And mine would have meant nothing if you had lost
yours,” Raul replied with a pained look. “I should never have brought you here.
Maybe it would be better if you and Estela went to live with your family in Burgos
until…”

Inés put her finger to his lips and shook her head.
“We’ve been through this before. You are my husband. My place is at your side.”

Raul frowned. “Sergio was right. You can be as
stubborn as a mule sometimes.”

“So are you,” Inés replied with a smile. “And I’m
afraid that Estela is turning out to be even more willful and stubborn than the
both of us combined.”

“You think so?”

“You spoil her too much. That doesn’t help.”

“And why not?” Raul said with a shrug. “She’s our only
child.”

“Maybe not,” Inés replied as she placed his hands on
her belly. She smiled as she caught sight of the amazement and dawning
recognition on Raul’s face. “Are you pleased?”

Raul raised his hands and cradled Inés’ face as he
said, “Tis a profound honor indeed to know that you are carrying my child. And
all the more reason why you shouldn’t stay here.”

“I’m not leaving,” Inés replied. “You can argue with
me all you want but I won’t change my mind.”

Raul sighed. “Very well then. Consider the matter
closed for now.”